Irish take momentum onto recruiting trail

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After an undefeated November, the Irish coaching staff hit the recruiting trail, and it isn’t hard to see the difference between spending the season’s final month building momentum versus the tailspin of the last two years. The commitments of Cam McDaniel and Everett Golson this week help illustrate how important stability at the top of a football program — and more importantly, winning football games — helps down the stretch in closing a recruiting class.

While Rich Rodriguez is fighting for his job and playing Josh Groban songs, Brian Kelly and his staff are canvasing the country, as the coaching staff have a recruiting class to finalize and a young roster to build upon.

(For those of you that think all 7-5 records are equal, the Michigan and Notre Dame situations show that to be quite untrue.)

While it’ll hardly be as comprehensive as some of the premium websites, here’s a look at where the coaches have been, who they might be targeting, and what’s left to accomplish.

THE COMMITMENTS:

Notre Dame currently has 18 verbal commitments for the 2011 recruiting class:

Josh Atkinson — DB
George Atkinson — WR
Kyle Brindza — K
Jalen Brown — DB
Brad Carrico — DE
Ben Councell — DE
Davaris Daniels — WR
Matthias Farley — DB/WR
Everett Golson — QB
Jarett Grace — LB
Conor Hanratty — OL
Eilar Hardy — DB
Matthew Hegarty — OL
Ben Koyack — TE
Cam McDaniel — RB
Anthony Rabasa — DE
Tony Springmann — DE
Stephon Tuitt — DE

As we’ve seen in the past with “commitments,” these are in no way binding, and Kelly and his staff have been out visiting all of their commitments this month as they come down the home stretch of the recruiting cycle.

Losing both Aaron Lynch and Clay Burton at defensive end certainly hurts the Irish, but they’ve done a very good job filling some holes on the depth chart there in this current class. The Irish’s lack of depth at safety was a huge issue this year as well, but all four safeties in the two-deep return and the Irish have a few guys that profile for the position and a few offers outstanding as well.

THE TARGETS

Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com reports that Brian Kelly spent much of the day yesterday visiting touted Iowa recruit Christian French and his family, offering the athlete the ability to come into Notre Dame as an offensive player and not an outside linebacker like many project French to be.

In addition to long-standing targets like French, the Irish continue to pursue New York’s Ishaq Williams, and recently had defensive coordinator Bob Diaco visit in advance of Williams’s official visit to campus next week. The Irish have a legitimate chance of landing Williams, something many thought was a long shot when the recruitment began.

The Irish are also still targeting running back Savon Huggins, who welcomed Diaco and running backs coach Tim Hinton into his home. Huggins has other official visits set up, but the Irish are a favorite here, and Huggins would be a great addition to a running back depth chart that loses two of its top performers in Armando Allen and Robert Hughes.

Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock swung by Anaheim to visit with defensive end target Troy Niklas, who has the Irish among his top three schools, with USC and Stanford also in the mix. Niklas is a 6-foot-7 athlete that also has a chance to be a tight end, but fits the developmental mode for a 3-4 defensive end in the Irish system. Servite high school and Orange county are traditional Trojan territories, but USC’s struggles and Stanford’s annual Jim Harbaugh departure questions give the Irish a shot at adding more depth along the edges of the defense.

Denbrock also headed to the Pacific Northwest to visit Oregon’s Brennan Scarlett, a top defensive end/outside linebacker prospect that compares favorably to current Irish defensive end (and Oregon native) Ethan Johnson. Scarlett has a national offer list, but he was in South Bend for the victory over Utah and adds another intriguing athlete and high-character kid to the fray.

WILDCARDS

One thing that seems different from the Kelly regime to the previous coaching staff under Charlie Weis is that the Irish seem to be in less “high-leverage” positions. Too often, the Irish put their eggs in the baskets of high profile athletes that changed their mind, leaving Notre Dame scrambling for other options. No doubt, defections hurt any recruiting class, but under Kelly and recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin, the Irish seem to have left themselves with plenty of options as signing day arrives, and now it’s a matter of filling up the remaining seats on the bus as more than enough passengers standing by, swinging the supply and demand power in the Irish’s favor.

The recruitment of Golson and McDaniel this week show just how nimble this recruiting staff is, and the addition of an early-entry national quarterback recruit like Golson this late in the game is pretty unparalleled for Notre Dame. Likewise, the Irish have a chance to add a few more wildcards to the fold before players ink their letters of intent.

Kansas native Shane Ray is a new target on the Irish board that has a lot of similarities to another outside linebacker that’s from the same area. It wasn’t long ago that Brian Smith walked away from a commitment to Missouri to come to Notre Dame, and Ray, who is coached by former Irish lineman Tim Grunhard and also committed to Mizzou, will be visiting South Bend this weekend.

When Randy Shannon was fired at Miami, the Irish dispatched Tony Alford to check on one-time target Anthony Chickillo, a high-motor defensive end whose father and grandfather played football for the Hurricanes. It’s likely that whatever coach is hired at Miami will have every shot to get Chickillo back in the fold, but with Alford on the scene, who knows what could happen.

With the Irish coaching staff’s connections to Ohio, don’t count them out on their pursuit of Doran Grant, a Buckeye target from Akron. Having just offered his teammate Cam McDaniel, Bennett Okotcha, currently a Wisconsin commit, could consider the Irish as well. Guys like Miles Shuler and the Stanford commit Amir Carlisle also stay in touch with the Irish, making the next few months an exciting time to follow the craziness that is college recruiting.

 

 

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.